Gender and Development

Our project views issues of gender and development from a holistic anthropological perspective. Researchers have recently focused on three broad areas which are helping us to better understand how gender inequality is tied to poverty. First, it has been recognized that what happens inside the household is crucial. In the 1970s and 1980s, poverty reduction strategies that targeted male household heads erroneously assumed that benefits would 'trickle down' to the rest of the household. In the late 1980s, it was recognized that male heads of household tended to distribute resources in ways which disadvantaged women and girls, and even when women generated income outside the home, they did not always retain control over those resources (Kennedy & Cogill 1987).

Second, overwhelming cross-cultural evidence suggests that women in many less developed countries are expected to invest in their families rather than in their own well-being, while men are freer to invest only in themselves. This has been called the feminisation of responsibility and/or obligation (Chant 2006, 2008). Women have primary responsibility for the unpaid care of the family and dependent children, while men withhold earnings or appropriate those of wives to fund fundamentally self-oriented pursuits (Chant 2008, 27). Poor men's desertion of families is another strategy for escaping the responsibilities of contributing to household consumption (Sen 2008, 7). Poorer working women have coped by sacrificing the education of their daughters who are expected to help their mothers care for the family (Kabeer 2008, 5). Thus poverty is not just about a lack of basic needs, but of opportunities and choices.

Third, it has been recognized that the most disadvantaged population group in developing countries are girls. They bear a heavy burden of work at home, receive less education than boys, are channelled into low paying jobs, vulnerable to exploitation and violence, and are pressured to marry young, sometimes even before the age of 15. M-banking through a private savings accounts accessible through SMS would be one way to improve young women's access to and control over their own earnings. Girls giving birth in adolescence are at greater risk of mortality, and girls are also at greater risk of infection from HIV and AIDS than boys and young men. As girls enter and move through adolescence, they become increasingly socially isolated, and this isolation only increases after they marry (Mathur, Greene & Malhotra 2003). Social isolation carries not only risks of remaining uneducated and illiterate, but also of rape and HIV infection. Health education could be set up through text messaging to mobile phones to reach girls who are socially isolated. The well-being of girls is important not only from a human rights' standpoint, but also because girls grow up to be mothers, and therefore play a key role in the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Although material poverty has received the most attention in development research since the 1970s, gender inequality is not just a matter of income and nutritional intake. A more promising approach acknowledges the multi-dimensional nature of gender disadvantage: lack of access to education, marriage customs and age at marriage, violence against women, norms regarding work and responsibility, inheritance and property rights, equal access to housing, control over resources such as land and water, distribution and consumption of resources within the household, and the socio-economic impact of health problems and HIV/AIDS. We seek to contribute to development theory by looking at how all these factors impact each other, and how rapidly disseminating mobile technologies are implicated.

It is only through holistic gender analysis that mobile technologies can fulfil their enormous potential for improving the lives of women and girls in low income countries. Sirpa Tenhunen has already shown how mobile technology has produced benefits for women in rural India. Just a decade ago, women could be facing food scarcity, or be mistreated in their husband's house for years before the news reached their parents. Now, phones are helping women in rural India to keep in touch with relatives, and since natal families continue to be the major source of help for married women, girls pay attention to whether there is a mobile phone in the house or neighborhood of a potential suitor (Tenhunen 2008, 531)

Mobile phones also carry great promise for alleviating health-related problems, since poverty is both a cause and consequence of illness. Poverty means less access to health services, and women in particular have less access than men. Health services utilizing mobile technologies could help women receive the assistance they need. Illness, in turn, leads to poverty when people are forced to sell their assets in order to get treatment. The possibility of obtaining affordable health care and guidance through mobile services before the illness gets worse could save huge numbers of people from poverty.